Education

Worried about in-person school? Here are the questions to ask

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Schools and districts across the country are preparing for decisions about whether to provide in-person schooling this fall—and if so, how to reopen safely and responsibly. The uncertainty and complexity of reopening schools during a pandemic is stressful for everyone involved. Parents have a lot of concerns about how schools can realistically keep teachers and students—and by extension, their families—safe.

Laura Wenham, a mom and teacher from Bellmore, New York, came up with a very comprehensive list of questions and concerns about the return to school, which she recently shared in our Coronavirus Parents Facebook group. Parents can use her list as a guide to check in with their child’s school or district to make sure they have clear health and safety plans in place.

Here are just some of the eye-opening questions that Wenham raised:

Getting to school

  • Will student’s temperatures and/or other symptoms be checked before they get on the bus?
  • Who is ensuring social distancing and mask wearing at bus stops? Will bus stops be reorganized or will students each be picked up at their homes, to avoid unnecessary contact?
  • At what point will walkers or students who are dropped off be expected to put on masks? Upon entering school property? Exiting the car? Reaching a distance of six feet from other people? Entering the building?
  • Will bus drivers be required to wear additional PPE due to their higher potential for exposure?
  • Will the school ensure that the bus company has enough replacement drivers available to cover potential shortages due to bus drivers needing to quarantine?
  • Are bus riders going to have assigned seats or load back to front in order of pickup? Who will ensure they stay in their seats?

Entering school

  • Will kids who ride the bus, get dropped off by a parent, and walk to school all be entering through the same door?
  • Will students be going into the auditorium, cafeteria, or other large space upon arrival to wait for classes to begin? Who will be enforcing safety procedures there?
  • Are school start times going to be staggered in order to process students into the building? How is that going to impact the amount of time students have to learn throughout the day without making teachers work longer days?
  • What type of thermometers will the school be using that will allow for socially distancing and speedy processing of students into the buildings? Will extra equipment be available in case of a thermometer malfunctioning or breaking?
  • What symptoms will staff be evaluating at the door as serious enough to have the student sent home? Which staff will be making those decisions, and how will they be trained?
  • Exactly what will happen when a student shows an elevated temperature or other symptoms at drop off? Where are they going to go and who is going to watch them until they can be picked up? Is that space going to have increased ventilation and/or air filtration?
  • How is school access going to be handled for parents who are dropping off lunches or forgotten items?

Student and staff health and quarantine plans

  • How is the district defining “exposure” and “symptomatic,” both in the building and at home or in other non-school settings? A positive test? A high fever? Any exposure to someone with symptoms?
  • Is the district going to enforce guidelines (such as a set number of students or staff in quarantine due to COVID from any particular building) that will cause that building or the entire district to switch to virtual learning?
  • Will teachers be given time to plan for virtual lessons before the district closes a class, a building, or the entire district, or goes to a hybrid schedule where some days or lessons are in the building and others are virtual? What are the expectations for teachers during such a transition and what support will be provided to them?
  • Is the district going to be able to continuously obtain appropriate PPE for teachers, nurses, and other school staff for the entire year? What about masks for students who do not have them or who get them dirty? 
  • Will the district be able to obtain enough COVID-appropriate cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and hand-washing supplies for the entire school year?
  • What is the district going to do about parents who refuse to make their students wear masks, or for children who cannot wear masks for health reasons? What health conditions will be accepted as a reason not to wear a mask?
  • Will the district be installing appropriate filtration for the HVAC systems, and will those filters be able to be replaced as needed throughout the year?
  • What happens if a teacher, school nurse, or other staff needs to quarantine due to potential exposure? What if the replacement staff person also needs to quarantine?
  • What happens if a student has to quarantine due to potential exposure? Will all their other siblings have to? What about their classmates or fellow bus riders?
  • How many times/for how long does a student or district staff member have to test negative before they can return to the building? What if access to testing for COVID is limited?

Classroom setup and management

  • How will classrooms be set up for social distancing? Will there be spacing between desks and chairs, and/or will there be dividers between students? Will there be outdoor learning?
  • Are parents going to be informed about what the chemicals being used for cleaning in the school are?
  • Are non-desk classroom areas like reading carpets going to be allowed? How will social distancing be handled in those spaces? How and when will they be cleaned? 
  • If frequent hand washing is required while maintaining physical distance for each student, how will the time that requires be balanced with schoolwork and other academic requirements?

Lunchtime

  • Will the lunchroom tables have dividers, or will students be eating in classrooms to maintain separate cohorts, as masks obviously cannot be worn while eating?
  • How will hot lunch (and access to free/reduced lunch meals) be handled for students if lunch is eaten in the classroom? Will there be menu choices? Will meals be delivered to classrooms, and who will be doing the delivery? 

Gym, recess, afterschool, and special subjects

  • Will students move into the special subject classrooms or will the subject teacher move into the regular classroom environment?
  • Will chairs and tables be cleaned with COVID-appropriate cleaning supplies if used by multiple classes throughout the day? How often will that cleaning happen? 
  • Will additional air filtration be used in these spaces if the spaces are used by multiple classes throughout the day?
  • Will classes be separated into distinct areas on the playground or will they be allowed to mix as in the past? How will this be enforced?
  • Will students be required to wear masks on the playground or during gym class?
  • Will playground equipment, art supplies, etc., be cleaned in between classes/grades? 
  • Are parent volunteers or other outside adults going to be allowed into the building to run clubs or afterschool care? What will the testing and PPE requirements be for those people?

Use of hallways, bathrooms, and other common areas

  • How will students maintain distance in the hallway and other common areas? Will markers be put on the floor to indicate a six-foot distance as visual reminders for students?
  • How will social distancing of students waiting in the space outside of bathrooms be handled?
  • How many students will be allowed in a bathroom at one time in order to ensure social distancing?
  • Will use of certain urinals or stalls be eliminated to force social distancing in these spaces?
  • Will additional reminders be placed in hallways and bathrooms to remind students about frequent hand washing, appropriate mask wearing, and social distancing?

Safety drills and building security

  • How will lockdown drills and fire drills be handled in a safe and socially distant manner in order to meet state safety requirements?
  • How will general building security at all locations be affected by COVID?

See the full list of detailed questions here. Wenham has generously extended permission for anyone to view, copy, and edit the list to better fit their child’s school situation, and parents or caregivers are welcome to share it with their district or school administrators.


Dealing with school closures, childcare issues, or other challenges related to coronavirus? Find support, advice, activities to keep kids entertained, learning opportunities and more in our Coronavirus Parents: Parenting in a Pandemic Facebook Group.

For ongoing updates on coronavirus-related issues and questions that impact children and families, please find additional resources here.




Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.